Miles on the clock: 18,115
Delving into rural China again; Guanxi Province; the G322 road from Nanning to Yangshuo; countless conical limestone karsts with lush skins of greenery serrating the horizon; the glowing emerald carpet of flat farmland connecting the karsts in the golden late-afternoon light; tidy little sheaves leaning together in freshly harvested fields; a long stretch of hopelessly pot-holed road; a meal of boiled starfish skin with an indifferent “chef” smoking, hocking and spitting a couple of yards away; a village woman spying from behind a tree as I perform my morning defecation al fresco; the northerly headwind which I was to battle most days on the ride to Beijing; a ten minute conversation with a women using online translation that ended in her asking if I speak Chinese for a third time; a road over rolling hills, loosely tracing a river, that brought me to Yangshuo.
Michi (the German I met in Vietnam) arrived and we quickly found him a rusty old mountain bike for 260 yuan (£26). The morning we rode out of Yangshuo, we first walked a couple of miles upriver and swam into the centre among completely untouched scenery. The current carried us, with increasing speed, around a couple of bends and back to the town where we were swept swiftly through the shallows. Scrambling gracelessly out of the water, we were heavily photographed by a tour group before padding barefoot back to the hostel and our bikes.
The phrase bu yao (literally ‘not want’) is endlessly useful as venders have a habit of enthusiastically thrusting duck eggs in your face while you inspect the cucumbers or triumphantly producing two kilos of garlic when you ask clearly for rice (mi fan). By the time we returned to our bikes (unavoidably with our purchases all bagged separately; environmental awareness is non-existant in China, government and citizens alike) we would usually have acquired quite a tail of curious children, jostling one another to get closer but not wanting to be the ones at the front, dangerously close to the tall, unpredictable white men. I rarely resisted the opportunity to scatter the crowd by suddenly turning and emitting a furious roar. This deterred them for a few short seconds before they returned and began trying to stroke or yank the apparently fascinating body hair that grows on guai lou (“foreign devils”); a disgusting feature to the Chinese eye.
One cool, sunny morning we were invited by the pump attendants of a remote petrol station to join their chicken, rice and beer breakfast. Michi confused the only customer in an hour by manning the pump himself and we rode on into the wind with fuzzy heads and leaden legs. By lunch we both felt embarrassingly hungover. A few days later, a stout, middle-aged woman saw me awkwardly trying to work her front-yard waterpump and simultaneously wash under it. She scooped up a jug and insisted on repeatedly filling the jug and baptismally pouring it over my head while I meekly soaped and rinsed my grimy, near-naked body.
Each day we saw people setting off thousands of firecrackers for the mid-autumn Zhongqiu (Lunar Harvest) Festival; the debris of partially-burned red paper shells littered the roadsides, sometimes ankle-deep. Wealthy wedding parties would proceed slowly through towns in a sombre convoy of beribboned black cars, throwing several lit strings of a hundred or more crackers out of their tinted windows. A thick smoke would then settle over the scene for an hour while the smell of gunpowder prevailed.
One night we camped on a hillock in the suburbs of a relatively small city called Linglin. In the morning, our mount was severally ascended and descended by a parade of elderly individuals exhibiting their array of unusual exercises. This phenomenon is to be seen in all Chinese cities. Some geriatrics swing their arms in great arcs with each step while others repeatedly clap their hands or slap their chests with a look of intense concentration on their faces. Some choose to move in an odd stumbling jog that is somehow slower than a walk and still more give out a strained “huhhgh” with each exhalation, as if they have just been punched in the stomach. Less amusing and more calming to watch are groups performing the slow, syncronised movements of Tai Chi in parks. On this particular morning, one of the hillock’s visitors stopped a few yards from us, concealed by a bush, and launched into a long series of piercing, off-key operatic sounds that must have carried a long way in the still morning air.
In the hostel we spent our time avoiding an overly-friendly male nurse who, in his words, “teaches masturbation in a sperm bank”. He said he loves his job but has no friends. We also met Julian, an English cyclist on his way home after 3 years riding the roads of Africa, the Americas, Japan and Korea.
We noticed the days getting shorter and the nights colder as we crept north and autumn ploughed south. The trees combusted into numberless reds, oranges and yellows; the rice harvest was over and the ground browned. At the beginning of November, the next crop of rice was sewn in immaculate green lines that stretched away to the horizon on the chessboard-flat land that we crossed. The days shortened, the temperature dropped and I wore socks and used a sleeping bag for the first time in over 6 months.
Guanxi, Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei: another five provinces and almost 2,000 miles of Chinese roads ridden. I have seen yet more and understand still less of this enigmatic country. I continue to probe and try to draw conclusions but thus far can only conclude that, in a country so massive and so diverse, no over-ridding statements can be made and I can only strive to see more. The fascination continues.